How to Know if It's Allergies or a Cold

You’ve been through a box of tissues already this week, and it’s only Wednesday. And this cold has been hanging on for what seems like forever. The runny nose, the sneezing.

Maybe the reason it won’t go away is that it’s not a cold at all but it’s an allergy. How do you know if your problem is an allergy or a cold? “This may be one of the most common questions,” says Kirk Waibel, M.D., former Allergy Consultant to the Army Surgeon General, now at Aspire Allergy & Sinus in San Antonio, TX.

What’s going on in your body is different—a cold is a result of a virus, and allergies are immune responses to allergens in your environment—but many of the symptoms are the same. Sneezing, eye irritation, and a runny nose can happen with both allergy and a viral illness.

The key questions to ask that help you determine what you have: Do you have a fever, body aches, and/or a sore throat? “These are much more common with a viral illness,” says Dr. Waibel. And if the symptoms pass in 7 to 10 days, it’s probably a cold. (Discover how to manage your cold better here.)

“Allergy symptoms can last for weeks during a pollen’s allergy season,” he says. If they go on for longer and they’re making you miserable, see an allergist—you may need more than one type of allergy treatment to get the best control over allergy symptoms.

Both colds and allergies, however, can leave you with an unpleasant remnant: Yellow or green mucus. “Some viral illnesses and bad allergies can result in a sinus infection that can be chronic and last for months,” he adds. “Patients with chronic sinusitis often complain of upper tooth pain, bad breath, a poor sense of smell, pain or pressure over their face, or chronic discolored drainage in the back of their throat.” So your lingering nose-blowing/post-nasal drip issue may be neither a cold nor allergies but something else entirely. Discover more about what to do about a sinus infection here.

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